Scarlett Johansson has been part of a lot of interesting projects lately… With Under the Skin certainly the strangest. Directed by Jonathan Glazer and written by Walter Campbell, the film is a great big abstract, surrealist painting of a movie. It doesn’t explain itself– and it gives you very little with which to figure out the plot.
Based on a book by Michel Faber, Under the Skin is a prime example of an art house challenge– with an incredibly slow pace through the first two-thirds. So much so, I got the distinct impression the director has a serious fetish for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. It’s filled with long shots of Johansson driving around Scotland picking up random men until she finds someone with no ties and no one waiting for him… Then she lures him back to a house, and devours him.
I haven’t read the book, so lacking any context, here’s my theory: Alien Food Tourism!
Hear me out… The story starts out with a naked Scarlett Johansson stripping the clothes off a dead Scarlet Johansson… Strongly implying our main character is a deadly doppelgänger. The alien also has a mysterious “friend”– a man on a motorcycle who acts as her crime scene cleaner. Whenever the unnamed alien kills, the mystery man shows up to remove anything left behind. True to its art house form, the kills are all represented in a very artsy fashion. Johansson lures the victims into a series of pitch black rooms, undressing as they follow her. Stark naked, the men then slowly sink into the floor until they vanish. Apparently satisfied, Johansson picks up her clothes and walks out.
So what made me think food tourism— rather than serial killer? It’s implied the kills are affecting the alien. After killing a few men, the motorcyclist arrives and takes a long look into her eyes– then leaves without a word. Just before her next kill, Johansson also stops to stare hard into her own eyes.
The alien can’t seem to stem the “ill” effects the killings are having on her psyche. Instead of the lack of empathy she exhibited before (Example: She left a toddler screaming on a beach after his parents drown in the ocean), she starts looking at the humans around her as actual people– instead of vessels of sustenance. She tries to understand them and even attempts to eat their food. She even stays with a human who offers to help her out, developing a nearly normal relationship with the man.
I will not spoil the ending. In all honestly, it’s the best part of the film. The pace picks up, and the audience is finally able to emotionally engage with the protagonist– caring about her safety and well-being. The dramatic intensity also ratchets up too… And some seriously disturbing things happen.
The more I sit on Under The Skin, the more I like it. However, there’s no escaping it’s a true trial to watch. The narrative build is long and extremely slow– often confusing and mostly unrewarding. When my male friend admitted to zoning out during Johansson’s nude scenes, I knew I wasn’t the only one who found the film a rough view. So you know, this reaction to nudity is not typical for him– but it does succinctly indicate just how abstract and disconnected this movie can be.
Under The Skin is really hard to rate… But I can tell you it’s extremely polarizing. If you enjoy art house films that are really hard to understand and make you work to enjoy yourself– you’ll probably love it. But if this review sounds like pure torture, I’d recommend waiting for Johansson’s Lucy— an August sci-fi action thriller written and directed by Luc Besson…It appears to be much more intriguing.